success stories

Posted February 4, 2004

George Weigelís Prognosis On
the Future Challenges Facing the Church

Questions Raised by Weigelís Observations:

What Does Church History Tell Us About These Problems And How The Church Has Handled Them In The Past? Is There Any New Problems That The Church Hasnít Face In The Past?

What Role Will The Laity Play In Meeting These Challenges?

Who Among Catholic Thinkers Will Surface As Leading Thinkers To Meet These Challenges?

What Role Will Catholic Colleges and Universities Play?

What Type Of Movements Will Be Needed To Respond To The Challenges?

A Crossroad for the Catholic Church

By George Weigel

The Washington Post, Tuesday, February 3, 2004; Page A19

What "issues" will frame the election to choose a successor to Pope John Paul II? Chances are they're not what you might think.

Consider, for example, what are often reported as the most controversial matters in the pontificate of John Paul II: abortion, homosexuality and ordination of women to the priesthood. The assumption is that, in the next conclave, the cardinal-electors will sort themselves out in conventional "conservative" and "liberal" camps around these questions. In fact, it won't work that way. John Paul II hasn't been teaching the personal opinions of Karol Wojtyla on these matters, he's been teaching the settled doctrine of the Catholic Church. That doctrine isn't going to change in the next pontificate, or in the 10 pontificates after that, because popes are the servants of doctrine, not its masters. What are frequently thought to be "the issues" in the next conclave aren't issues at all.

What are?

At least three matters of global consequence are shaping the pre-conclave discussions among key cardinal-electors.

Collapsing Catholicism in Europe. Europe is committing demographic suicide, as no Western European state has a replacement level birth rate. At the same time, Catholic practice in Western Europe is at historical lows. Churchmen believe these two hard facts of European Catholic life are related: Europe is heading for demographic disaster because it is in a severe crisis of cultural morale. That crisis is one result of a radical secularization that dissolves a people's sense of responsibility for the future. Not even a pope as devoted to pan-European culture as John Paul II has been able to jump-start the Catholic Church into renewed institutional vitality in "Old Europe." What the next pontificate can do about the collapse of Catholicism in Catholicism's historic cultural homeland is a large, urgent and unsettled issue for the next conclave -- and for the future of the West.

Radical Islam. The Vatican has long resisted the idea that the 21st century will be dominated by a "clash of civilizations." Yet the cardinal-electors know that there are two culturally assertive religious communities with global reach in the world -- Catholicism and Islam -- and they know that radical Islamism is an implacable enemy of religious freedom, the centerpiece of the Catholic Church's approach to world politics for a quarter-century. The question now under discussion is one of strategy: How can the Catholic Church's dialogue with the worlds-within-worlds of Islam strengthen the position of Muslim religious leaders and intellectuals who want to develop an authentically Islamic case for religious toleration and civility in pluralistic societies?

Biotechnology. The Catholic Church welcomes the new genetic knowledge and its capacity to advance the arts of healing. The Catholic Church also teaches that attempts to remanufacture the human condition by manufacturing (or retrofitting) human beings end up dehumanizing us. How to shape the global debate about the new biotechnologies so that humanity gets to the 22nd century without finding itself ensnared in Aldous Huxley's brave new world is a mega-issue bearing hard on the next conclave.

In addition to these weighty questions, the next conclave will be shaped by dramatically altered expectations of the papacy. The world and the church no longer think of the pope as the CEO of Catholic Church Inc. Thanks to John Paul II, the world and the church now expect the pope to exercise a global ministry of religious presence and moral witness. At the same time, influential cardinal-electors believe that John Paul II has been more successful in articulating a robust, compassionate Catholic orthodoxy than in embedding that vision in the church's practice. Finding a man who can do both -- bring the church to the world in a compelling way, and reform the church's discipline -- is the great "personality" issue the cardinals must resolve.

The next conclave's electors will be the most diverse such group in history. The cardinals don't know each other well, don't have a single common language and are keenly aware that they must find a successor to a giant figure. Previous electors lived in jury-rigged cubicles in the Vatican's offices, furnished with cots and chamber pots; thanks to a modern Vatican guest house built by John Paul II, the cardinal-electors will live comfortably rather than miserably.

All of which suggests that the next conclave is going to be complex, difficult, probably lengthy -- and perhaps quite surprising.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II."